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Stress during our waking life continues to affect us while we sleep and can lead to an increase in strange dreams and nightmares, disrupting a healthy sleep pattern. Getty Images
  • Strange dreams may be a result of the stressful events occurring this year.
  • Happenings encountered in real life can transfer to dreams.
  • When sleep is fragmented or disrupted, you may remember more of your dreams.

If you’re waking up more often thinking, “That was a weird dream,” the stress of current events may be to blame.

“Given that a lot of pretty unprecedented events have occurred over the past few months, it is not surprising that many people are experiencing weird dreams. Part of it is control. Most people have had almost no control over how the pandemic has spread and affected their lives,” Dr. Pavan Madan, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, told Healthline.

Madan said while cognitively people understand and accept the recommendations for COVID-19, the mind does not like to deal with things that it cannot control or predict, such as the pandemic and acts of racial discrimination.

All of the emotions triggered by these stressful events ruminate during sleep.

“Dreams are one of the ways our mind processes emotions, especially intense emotions, so it’s natural to have nightmares when we are under stress. For most people, these dreams stop when the stress goes away,” Jennifer Martin, PhD, member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) board of directors, told Healthline.

The AASM reports that dream incorporation occurs when a stimulus encountered in real life transfers to dreams. Moreover, when sleep patterns change and people have more fragmented or disrupted sleep, they may remember more of their dreams.

Because dreams are often a reflection of the subconscious mind, anxiety plays a part when it comes to disturbing dreams, adds Madan.

“Even if we are not consciously thinking about it, many people are anxious about yet another bizarre crisis that is beyond their control. It is possible that our minds are now weaving possible absurd scenarios that can play out, perhaps to prepare us in case we face another crisis,” he said.

With many people out of work or working from home, and as shifts in socializing occur, there are fewer distractions and more time to reflect on what’s happening in the world.

“These reflections may also be playing a role in bringing strange thoughts and dreams,” said Madan.

To keep dreams from allowing you a good night’s sleep, try the following tips.

1. Don’t dwell on dreams

If you wake up during an intense dream or nightmare, Martin says accept that dreams are a normal part of emotional processing during stressful times.

“Take a relaxing breath, and see if you can go back to sleep. If you can’t go back to sleep, get up and distract yourself for a bit with something else — a crossword puzzle, a book, or just sit quietly in another room for a few minutes,” she said.

Then go back to bed when you feel calm.

2. Feed your brain positive images

If the last images in your mind’s eye before you try to sleep are COVID-19-related, then that is what you will most likely dream about.

“Take a few minutes to look at photos from your last vacation, watch silly videos on YouTube, or play a board game. The visual images we see during the day, especially near bedtime, often come up in our dreams,” Martin said.

3. Take care of your sleep

Since nightmares have a bigger impact when sleep is fragmented, Martin says getting good sleep is more important than ever.

“If sleep is fragmented and we wake up a lot, we are more likely to remember what our dreams were about,” she said.

She suggests having a consistent time to go to bed and get up in the morning, as well as a good routine to wind down at the end of the day.

“Don’t spend too much time in bed. Most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Extending your time in bed too [far] beyond that leads to broken sleep,” she said.

4. Practice self-care

Limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption, which can both disrupt sleep, is one way to help your body. Also, exercising and practicing mindfulness strategies like breathing techniques or yoga can help calm your mind, says Madan.

“Some people benefit from listening to calming music or audiobooks, reading an informative but boring book, or using other sensory faculties to calm themselves at night. Taking a shower, consuming chamomile tea or inhaling lavender oil have also been suggested to have a calming effect,” he said.

Because it can be hard to avoid thinking about the stresses going on, Madan suggests assigning a time to “worry” or contemplate during the day, so that you can allow yourself to sleep at night.

5. Talk about your stress and anxiety

Rather than pushing aside your worries, consider talking about them with a loved one or therapist.

“The more we process these thoughts consciously, the less they might bother us at night. Talk to your therapist about cognitive and behavior techniques that can help you reduce your anxious thoughts at night,” said Madan.

He points to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a specialized therapy designed to address insomnia.

“Although CBT-I is best done under the guidance of a trained therapist, you may get started on it by reading books written on CBT-I,” he said.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, which can cause the release of stress hormones as well as insomnia, Madan says it’s particularly important to talk with a therapist about the best therapy and treatments for sleep issues.

“Be careful with taking sleep medications, as they can have adverse side effects, including dependence potential,” he said.